- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Jacques Lemaire’s exit was hardly unexpected. The Chicago Blackhawks’ near departure was almost a much bigger stunner.

Lemaire said goodbye to the New Jersey Devils for the second straight year after the club he took over in midseason finished a rare non-playoff campaign with a 3-2 victory Sunday over the playoff-bound Boston Bruins.

The 65-year-old Lemaire took over for the fired John Maclean in December after retiring following last season, and led the Devils on an amazing run that got them close to their 14th straight playoff appearance before falling short.

“I still do think that I made the right decision last year, but I am really happy I took the job for the rest of the season,” Lemaire said.

The Blackhawks will get a chance to defend their first Stanley Cup title since 1961, but they had to sweat it out until Sunday night. Had they missed the playoffs, they would’ve had only themselves to blame.

Chicago kicked off the final day of the NHL regular season with a home game against the Detroit Red Wings, who were locked into the third seed in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks knew one point would secure a place in the playoffs, and two would push them up to No. 5.

They got neither in a 4-3 loss.

With one more chance to back in Sunday night, the Blackhawks got a reprieve when the Dallas Stars lost 5-3 in their former home of Minnesota and handed the No. 8 seed to Chicago in the final game of the regular season. The Blackhawks will take on the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the first round.

“It was in our control, and we didn’t win,” Stars forward Brad Richards said.

The same scenario played out with slight variations on consecutive days to determine the eighth and final teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

On Saturday, the New York Rangers beat the New Jersey Devils to stay alive in the East, and then got the required help when Carolina lost at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning when a victory would’ve put the Hurricanes into the playoffs.

The Rangers earned the berth that seemed unlikely hours earlier and will face the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round for the second time in three years.

The other Eastern matchups that were all decided by Saturday night. The No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers, who reached the Stanley Cup finals against Chicago last year out of the seventh-seeded position, will face the surging Buffalo Sabres; No. 3 Boston, the Northeast Division champions, will play longtime Original Six rival Montreal; and the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins, who probably won’t have captain Sidney Crosby in the first round and will certainly be without Evgeni Malkin for the rest of the season, will take on the fifth-seeded Lightning.

Out West, besides Vancouver’s matchup with Chicago, No. 2 San Jose will take on seventh-seeded Los Angeles in the third playoff matchup between California teams; No. 3 Detroit will face sixth-seeded Phoenix for the second straight year; and fourth-seeded Anaheim will play No. 5 Nashville.

Three California teams reached the playoffs, while only two of Canada’s six clubs (Montreal and Vancouver) are represented.

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